music legend uses the power of song to help prevent family violence.

in a room with bars on the windows and signs on plain walls stating "we don't tolerate violence or abuse" and "no excuse for family violence", a disparate group fills the room with heartfelt songs about better ways to deal with life's tough stuff.

They include police officers in uniform and support staff in civvies, prisoners with tattoos and new zealand music legend tina cross. It's not often prison inmates and police sing from the same song sheet so it's a rare but uplifting sight - and sound - as music unites them.

Supported by the department of corrections and the music and audio institute of nz (mainz), cross has launched a programme called the power of song to prevent family violence.

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She's taken the programme to auckland women's prison in wiri and to auckland prison in paremoremo, spending two days talking about lyrics and coaching prisoners - many of them soon to be released - to give group singing a try so they can stage a performance for invited guests.

"I just feel this is part of my life's journey," says cross, the voice of the shortland street theme song. "I've had a 42-year-long professional career; I've sung solo and in groups but I truly believe this is one of the best things I have ever done. It's a way I can give back and hopefully make a difference in the world."

An ambassador for women's refuge nz, in 2014 cross wrote walk away - the first song she'd released in 25 years - about plucking up the courage to leave violent relationships. While she has never experienced domestic violence herself, cross appeared in a musical production of once were warriors and says that brought the issues to the fore for her.

"I'm not a dave dobbyn or don mcglashan; I don't have a songwriting background but the words to walk away came together in about four hours because I felt so strongly about it," she says. "I thought, 'this has a really powerful message' and it applies as much to those who commit family violence as those who live with it. It's about saying there's another way, things can be different."

Since walk away, she's also recorded breaking free and just another little one - the latter a tribute to toddler moko rangitoheriri who died from fatal injuries inflicted by adults meant to be caring for him.

Cross acknowledges she thought twice about performing the songs in prisons but says lyrics can be a powerful tool for examining meaning, evoking emotion and talking about how we deal with difficult feelings. She also wanted to build on the known benefits of group singing to encourage the men and women to develop new coping mechanisms, skills and interests.

Study after study has found singing with a group helps develop confidence and social networks, improves physical and mental health - evidence points to the release of stress-relieving hormones - is great exercise and entertainment.

Phil oxenham, mainz programme leader for its sound and music foundation courses, says the skills we look to sport to provide, especially for young people, can be found in performing arts: Tackling new challenges, problem-solving, working as a group, perseverance and creative expression.

Given that, it's not surprising that when auckland prison director andy longley is asked why he introduced a singing programme, he says "it's not just singing, is it?"

That's a view shared by members of the counties manukau district commander's police choir who have, more or less, made cross an honorary member after she came to perform with them three years ago.

The choir was the idea of louise mann, the then-district commander superintendent john tims's executive assistant, and was led by inspector warwick morehu until he moved to bay of plenty district.

Since 2013, it has performed a variety of community and police events and has around 24 members, including non-sworn staff. Those involved say it's a great way to meet staff from around the expansive counties manukau district, to keep creativity alive in their lives and show a different side of policing.

Tina Cross believes that instilling pride in prisoners goes a long way towards helping their rehabilitation. Photo / Nick Reed
Tina Cross believes that instilling pride in prisoners goes a long way towards helping their rehabilitation. Photo / Nick Reed

Choir leader inspector nga-wati chaplow says it represents the changing face of policing - more community-orientated; willing to look at new ways of dealing with hard problems like the prevalence of family violence.

"The value is intrinsic," he says.

Adds detective sergeant kate smith: "People think we're a***holes; this helps them to see us as human."

Which is a sentiment expressed by ed. One of the older auckland prison inmates who signed up for the power of song, he says it's changing his view about police.

"They've all been very approachable, friendlier and demonstrated a degree of compassion by being willing to step outside of their roles and extend the hand of friendship so that's a real positive," he says.

His younger counterparts acknowledge that, but also talk of experiencing a sense of pride in achieving something they doubted they could, of learning new skills and feeling a sense of calmness and happiness they haven't felt for a long time.

It's perhaps summed up by the frontman for the prison church band, sons of god. An accomplished musician, he says he's leaving paremoremo with a new attitude: "Being in here has re-wired my mind, my heart and my spirit; I want to go home as an asset to my family."

For her part, cross says the experience at auckland prison was everything she hoped it would be and more.

"As well as sharing the potent messages within my original songs, I was able to reach all of the guys on a respectful one-on-one level," she says. "They all cared very much about whether they would be able to deliver the goods, given the short amount of rehearsal time. So the challenge was offered and they all rose to the occasion.

"I do believe that instilling pride within these men, for what has been personally achieved, goes a long way towards helping their rehabilitation and ultimately their healing. I was very proud of all of them and best of all they were very proud of themselves."

Cross says she'd be keen to return to offer occasional vocal coaching sessions, particularly with those who had great singing voices, and would offer it as a koha simply because she wants to see those with potential further their music and singing ability.

A choir for the boys

Frank* says his family has long been involved in music, mainly through church, and he sang in school choirs up until high school. Then he stopped because his friends started ribbing him about it, saying it wasn't for "the boys".

Those friends obviously hadn't met Warwick Morehu, the policeman who founded the counties manukau district commander's choir and is now Taupo District area commander.

His main claim to fame? Until last year, it might have been as the face of the 1999 rugby world cup campaign when 400 billboards featuring morehu with a computer-enhanced moko appeared throughout europe and he starred in tv advertisements screened in 42 countries.

Last year, though, Morehu ended the siege during which gunman Rhys Warren shot and injured four police officers in the bay of plenty town of Onepu. Warren, who was last month sentenced to preventative detention, reportedly asked that Morehu be the one to arrest him.

The former top rugby player has taken part in kapa haka since he was a child and says he wanted to start a police choir to bring people together, giving them a creative outlet and a way to de-stress.

When it comes to peer pressure, Morehu says young men like Frank have to find ways to rise above it.

"It's about developing leadership, about not letting yourself get dragged down by those challenges."

He says we underestimate the huge power of the arts to build self-esteem and pride, to connect with other like-minded souls.

"And music transcends language."

* not his real name.